Rural Wales post-Covid recovery needs integrated programme, says report

Professor Michael Woods

Professor Michael Woods

24 March 2021

Rural Wales needs an integrated programme to improve infrastructure, diversify the economy, unlock housing and strengthen community resilience as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to researchers at Aberystwyth University.

Research by the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University has found that the pandemic has intensified existing challenges for Rural Wales, but has also pointed to new opportunities.

Direct impacts have included an above-average number of workers on furlough, a jump in unemployment, and reduced revenue for small businesses, especially in tourism.

The pandemic has also highlighted inequalities in access to broadband, healthcare and housing, and the over-dependence of some rural areas on tourism and microenterprises.

The rise of remote working and renewed interest in local food present opportunities for revitalising rural communities.

However, the research warns that these may be squandered if not supported by appropriate policies and investment in infrastructure to ensure that the benefits are evenly spread.

The research work was conducted in collaboration with the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) as part of the EU-funded ROBUST project.

Professor Michael Woods, at the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University, who led the research, explained:

“Rural communities, like urban communities, have been scarred by COVID-19, but the pandemic has also exposed long-standing vulnerabilities in the rural economy and new inequalities for rural residents with poor broadband and mobile signals as life and work has moved online. Remote working holds a promise of attracting families to rural communities and retaining young people, but without better infrastructure it will not reach the most in-need places, and could have a damaging impact by fuelling house-price inflation.”

The report identifies seven policy priorities to ensure that the recovery in rural Wales is fair and sustainable.

These include: diversifying and greening the rural economy; developing the skills and opportunities of the rural workforce; investing in digital infrastructure and preparing for post-carbon transport; encouraging more widely-spread and sustainable tourism; providing affordable housing that meets the needs of rural communities; supporting small towns with a Smart Towns Initiative; and empowering communities and keeping wealth within local economies.

Professor Woods added: “As the Welsh Government starts to plan its new Rural Development Programme, we’re calling for a holistic approach that connects agriculture, environment, economy and public services to build a sustainable Rural Wales in which people can live and work. We need action to address the weaknesses and disparities in the rural economy and society, but also policies that equip rural communities for future challenges”

One of the projects listed in the report as an example of the way forward for the post-Covid recovery is 4CG, a community-owned social enterprise in Cardigan established to promote the development of the town.

Working with others, including as part of a Town Centre Partnership, 4CG has implemented a number of projects, several with an emphasis on using digital tools. These have included installing a public pay-as-you-go wifi network through the town, Rhwyd Teifi, based on a superfast broadband connection, and the development of a town app for tablets and smartphones.

Commenting on the value of the social enterprise, one of its founders Clive Davies commented:

“It’s great to see the work of 4CG acknowledged in the report - hopefully it can be a model for other rural areas. 4CG is a co-operative that a small group of us have established to promote community development through the regeneration of Cardigan and the surrounding area. We set it up because we felt strongly that there were many opportunities within Cardigan to increase community cohesion, enhance our surroundings and to take small steps to help improve the local economy. The wifi network is an important part of these efforts, and we hope that other similar projects will inspire other rural areas as we look to rebuild after the pandemic.”

The Aberystwyth University report’s recommendations have already been adopted by the WLGA Rural Forum of council leaders as the basis for their Rural Vision.

The research team have now released the research and analysis behind the recommendations by publishing their evidence report.

The research findings and recommendations were presented at an event on ‘COVID-19 and Rural Wales’, organised by the Centre for Welsh Politics and Society at Aberystwyth University to mark the anniversary of the first lockdown.

As well as the presentation by Professor Woods, the panel discussed the impact of the pandemic on business, culture, healthcare, public services and vulnerable groups in Rural Wales, with speakers including Guy Evans (The Care Society), Dr Wyn Morris (Aberystwyth University) and Dr Caroline Turner (Powys County Council).